Just how helpful is reading for depression?

As winter blues loom, many turn to books for distraction or consolation. But these familiar balms are not always enough.

Books should not serve as artefacts that pull you into darkness.

Just how helpful is reading for depression?

As winter blues loom, many turn to books for distraction or consolation. But these familiar balms are not always enough

Winter: that gruesome time of year when the sun only pops round to see you off to work and leaves before you can cancel your dinner plans. It has always been a ghastly time for me. When the clocks go back on that insignificant October day and the night crawls in much earlier, the woeful and dampening winter spirit takes hold. Winter blues really aren’t so blue: grey is a much more apt colour for the mood.

Books have been used by many, consciously or not, as a form of therapeutic relief. I plunged into them as desperately as I usually seek my morning coffee. Each Christmas, I have a habit of returning to old favourites that complement the mood, such as Jane Eyre. Sometimes, to seek refuge from the bitter cold, I run back to the heat that I am used to, so will read a lot of books set in Africa. Whenever the cold becomes too much to bear, I reach for Titsi Dandaremga’s Nervous Conditions. One character in the book, Nyasha, embodies the mental disparity of girls who have grown up balancing cultures, the archetypal diasporic woman caught between her cultural customs and western ideals.

It became important for me to find a means to escape my sadness in the lives of others. And isn’t that what art and fiction is for? To let you feel the timbers of life shake but also to broaden the imagination so widely that you temporarily forget the banality of everyday life. The sense of community that one finds in books, a companionship with the narrative voice or the characters, can help provide a friend when in need and tackle one symptom and possible cause of depression – loneliness. A similar sense of community can be had in libraries, as shown by Arts Council England’s 2015 research that found that regular library use saves the NHS a little under £30m a year and that those who regularly used the library were more satisfied with their lives than those who didn’t.https://d004b1b555f6c4da5a523500a673ed59.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

According to JJ Bola, the poet and author of No Place to Call Home, “the world can get you so down you feel like you’re the only person going through what you’re going through. But then you read and you realise that you are not alone; that if someone else has gone through it and survived, then maybe you can, too.” It is this survival that the reader looks for, this understanding that the winter is not so long after all.

The author and musician Courttia Newland agrees: “When I was going through a particularly traumatic period in my late teens, books and reading were presented to me as a way to mentally convalesce. Being an avid reader already, I instantly recognised their value. To read myself, racially and spiritually, was the greatest gift and it was then that I discovered Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners – which not only unequivocally told me where I came from, but also showed me where to go – as it was reading that novel that gave me the ideas for my first published work of fiction.”https://d004b1b555f6c4da5a523500a673ed59.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

Reading certainly can be therapeutic. Authors who have suffered from depression and other mental health issues have either sought solace in books, run to them for distraction or simply found a way to transcribe the messiness in their minds – Stephen King wrote about his depression and substance abuse while writing a few of his most admired novels in On Writing. For DH Lawrence, “one sheds one’s sickness in books”. Still, this is probably not the purpose of books.

Whenever I feel depressed and turn to literature for comfort, the chosen book either lifts my mood or, if it is a sad one, plunges me further into misery that also helps me know that I am not alone. But when a depressive episode ends, I will often open a book and find myself transported back to the very same mood that drove me to seek solace in literature in the first place. Indeed, I seem to have conditioned myself to only read when in low spirits.https://d004b1b555f6c4da5a523500a673ed59.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

While books and art can lift you up and put you in a state of eudaemonia, they are not antidepressants. When I became seriously depressed, I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone maintain the strength and concentration required to read. Literature is, at best, a complement to professional medical help. Arts are the food of the soul, but the mind and body need nourishment, too. As the novelist Jon McGregor says, “I don’t really like the idea of books being good for you – can’t they just be great in their own right?”

McGregor is especially wary of the suggestion that books can be any kind of cure for mental ill-health. “Serious depression can be so debilitating that a person experiencing it can’t even find the focus to read a book, apart from anything else,” he explains. “But of course, the best fiction can help us to learn new ways of seeing the world and of relating to other people; can teach us deep empathy. And I’m pretty sure that empathy is very good for wellbeing.”https://d004b1b555f6c4da5a523500a673ed59.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

We all need to take a look at what we read, when we read and what we get from reading. Books are neither medicine nor therapy. They should also not serve as artefacts that pull you into darkness. I am slowly re-establishing my relationship with books by being very particular with what I read, but most importantly, feeling fine that when I can’t read, that is also OK. It is important that I come to books without preconceptions of what I want the book to give me. And while I am concentrating on feeding my soul, I cannot let my mind and body run amok without ensuring they both get the best possible care also.

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